D’Angelo Russell only moved to New York a year ago, but you’d never be able to tell — visually, he fits right in. The Brooklyn Nets point guard sips a cocktail of style, ambition, and confidence New Yorkers are nothing if not constantly drunk on. D’Angelo is one of us — until, of course, he opens his mouth to reveal how kind, gracious, and patient he is. That’s not New York. That’s country.
The southern-made point guard took to NoMad’s Neuehouse Monday night to premiere his collaboration with New Era and Patrick O’Dell (Epicly Later’d, Dumb: The Story of Big Brother Magazine), “The Path to the Cap”. The short film hits the rewind button on Russell’s story, decentralizing him from NBA stardom and recharacterizing him as a grounded student dedicated to his craft. The film revisits the defining moments of the 22-year-old’s career path and culminates with the night that rocked his world: June 25, 2015. O’Dell’s film reminds us that there are young men under those New Era draft caps, and the choice to share a personal history opens up an understanding of the athlete beyond wins, losses, and lottery picks. “The Path to the Cap” may climax with a spectacular moment in a 19-year-old’s life, but it’s the substance of the film that makes it joyfully engaging and touchingly relatable.
D’Angelo Russell grew up in the West End neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky with his high school sweetheart parents, Antonio Sr. and Keisha, and two elder brothers, Antonio Jr. and LaShawn. Once an outlet for the energetic class clown in D’Angelo, basketball would become a touchstone for the entire Russell clan, from his beloved six-foot-tall grandma on down. When the Russell boys engraved their names in the wet cement of their makeshift outdoor court, D’Angelo didn’t realize he’d written his name in the stars.
This is the binding thread of “The Path to the Cap”: everything on D’Angelo’s journey has been hard-earned without the expectation of a silver platter. It’s not like he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. When he started playing college ball in 2014, Russell wasn’t even thinking of donning a crisp purple-and-gold New Era cap that coming June — he was a five-star recruit, but his name wasn’t on anyone’s draft board. The learning lessons D’Angelo reflects on are reflective of his development: he’s built strong character bridled by undying appreciation.
The on-court sibling rivalry between the Russell boys would lay the groundwork for D’Angelo’s journey from Louisville to Montverde, Florida. Basketball was integral to the boys’ childhood, but as D’Angelo approached young adulthood, he chose to funnel his family’s pastime into his future. Following in the footsteps of fellow Louisville native Rajon Rondo, Russell chose to leave the comforts of home and his family, moving to central Florida for prep school and new, uncertain challenges
Describing Montverde Academy as a “culture shock” — “everyone’s 6’9”!” — Russell exchanged being “the man” at Louisville’s Central High School to humbling himself as a hard-working teammate in a fantastical place where everyone’s a star. Russell quickly had to understand the importance of confidence over arrogance, work ethic over-reliance on talent, and hard-nosed
coaching over unconditional comfort. Reminiscing on being cursed out by coach Frank Boyle at their first practice, Russell explains he had to get over a tugging urge to fly straight back to Kentucky. He’s grateful he didn’t.
After winning two of three national championships with Boyle and Montverde, Russell fell in love with The Ohio State University. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta fondly remembers D’Angelo and his father arguing in Matta’s office during their first campus visit: “I wanna commit right now!” For Russell, it was love at first sight in Columbus. He’d felt a sense of belonging.
For some young players hellbent on the NBA, college is genuinely inconsequential — just a year of unpaid work. But for D’Angelo, who’d never envisioned himself a one-and-done player, academics were of equal import to representing the Big Ten. He kept his GPA above 3.0 in the classroom, and on the court, his production (and draft stock) skyrocketed.
Coincidence or not, D’Angelo says he was doing stuff he’d “never done before”, and NBA experts noticed too. By the time D’Angelo won Big Ten Freshman of the Year, the NBA was pleading for him. So the most direct path to the cap was paved. The Los Angeles Lakers would choose scarlet-suited D’Angelo with the No. 2 pick. Russell describes the real-time reactions of his family as the “most ugliest crying faces you’ve ever seen” — they knew the journey wasn’t all yellow brick road, but the payoff was better than reaching any Emerald City.
O’Dell, to Russell’s surprise, tracked down Karl-Anthony Towns for the film. Towns, a close friend to Russell and the 2015 No.1 pick to Russell’s No. 2, helped to give context to the summer night in Brooklyn that changed their lives for good. The young men reflect on worrying about everything from suit wrinkles to impacting the destiny of the franchises that would choose them.
And yet, once they were handed those New Era caps up on the national stage, every worry evaporated. Well, except for “I hope my hair fits under this!”
After viewing the film for the first time, D’Angelo described the on-screen testimonies of his loved ones as “something beautiful to hear.” He didn’t expect his high school and college coaches to chip in but expressed gratitude at their participation in the film.
During a Q&A with O’Dell, Russell discussed coming to terms with adulthood by learning from his brothers, who showed him that rewards aren’t always physical or immediate: “I thought you’re supposed to make good grades, and, okay, you’re supposed to go get taken out for ice cream for it.” Hard work pays off, but for Russell, the rewards have often been latent.
Today, D’Angelo Russell calls the Barclays Center his home court. Serendipitous indeed — its where he earned that first cap, after all — but Brooklyn is hardly his destination. If “The Path to the Cap” shows anything, it’s that D’Angelo Russell’s path stretches longer than the film accounts for.
Sure, he’s made a global name for himself, is starring in short films premiered at Manhattan art houses, and has New Era-caliber endorsements. But Russell has won fewer games in three NBA seasons than he did in three high school seasons. He was traded in a cross-country money dump. Knee surgery has threatened his relationship with the game he loves. That feeling of belonging once felt in Columbus has eluded him in the name of the “business of basketball.”
Playing for losing teams and rehabbing from injuries are just D’Angelo Russell’s version of happy circumstances. There are miles left to learn, work, grow, and wander — it’s D’Angelo’s essence.
“The Path to the Cap” premieres Tuesday, June 19. The 2018 NBA Draft is Thursday, June 21.